Category Archives: Plants

plants & fungi

Dead to Alive — Just Add Water

Dried Selaginella Lepidophylla appears to be dead (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

5 January 2023

How long does it take for the dead-looking plant above to look like the one below?

The dead ball is the exact same plant as the one below: Selaginella lepidophylla, native to the Chihuahuan Desert.

Selaginella Lepidophylla after humidification (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

See an animation of what happens when you add water in this vintage article.

p.s. The one pictured above opened quickly at first. It took 24 hours to turn green.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Drunk On Fermented Fruit

Cedar waxwing in Ohio (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

28 December 2022

After five days of extremely cold weather the temperature is rising into the 40s today and will stay above freezing in the week ahead. Hard fruits that were softened by the freeze are now poised to ferment in warmer weather. Soon we may see drunken birds.

Birds leave crabapples and Callery pears on the trees in November because they’re too hard to eat. Freezing breaks down the starches into sugars and when the fruit thaws it is soft and yummy. However yeast gets into the fruit and ferments it. Birds gobble up the soft tasty fruit. If they eat too much they get drunk.

Callery pear fruit, before and after freezing (photos by Kate St. John)

When abundant rowan berries fermented in Gilbert, Minnesota in October 2018, waxwings gorged on them and became quite drunk.

This black-billed magpie didn’t care that he was eating fermented apples until he could barely walk. He staggers among the apples and is only slightly more agile by the end of the video.

Pumpkins are a fruit and, yes, they can ferment. When they do, squirrels get drunk.

Discarded pumpkins in Bloomfield, Dec 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

In 2015 a study reported that fermented fruit is becoming more common because of climate change. There’s more news in this vintage article.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

Seen This Week

Burning bush leaf and fruit, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

19 November 2022

On Tuesday morning, 15 November, I found beautiful fruits on my walk in the neighborhood: Red berries on invasive burning bush (Euonymus alatus), purple berries on native American Beautyberry (Callicarpa americana), and dusty blue fruit on invasive English ivy (Hedera helix).

American beautyberry, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
English ivy berries, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

It began to snow so I hurried home and was glad I was indoors when it came down fast. It looks peaceful in slow motion at the end of this video.

The snow stuck to the grass, parked cars, and the Pitt peregrine nest …

Snow on the Pitt peregrine nest, 15 November 2022, 2:15pm

… then melted overnight as the temperature rose and low clouds moved in.

Low clouds at 8pm, 15 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

By Friday most leaves were gone and the only green shrubs in Schenley Park were invasive plants: Bush honeysuckle in this view …

Scene in Schenley Park, 18 Nov 2022. The green shrubs are invasive honeysuckle (photo by Kate St. John)

… and bamboo near the railroad tracks.

Scene in Schenley Park, 18 Nov 2022. The green shrubs are invasive bamboo (photo by Kate St. John)

Tonight the temperature will drop to 19 degrees for a very cold start to the new week. Brrrrr!

(photos and video by Kate St. John)

Colors This Month

Morning glory blooming in Bloomfield, 8 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

12 November 2022

Believe it or not, flowers bloomed this week in Pittsburgh. I found morning glories in Bloomfield and hawkweed at Moraine State Park.

Hawkweed blooming at Moraine State Park, 9 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

The leaves were still beautiful on 2 November but warm weather could not bring back their vibrant colors.

Viburnum leaves turn red, 2 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Bright yellow leaves on devils walking stick, 2 Nov 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Next week will be dull brown after frost zaps all the colors.

(photos by Kate St. John, forecast from the National Weather Service)

Eagles Die When We Kill a Weed

Bald eagle portrait (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 November 2022

In 1994 dozens of bald eagles were found convulsing, dead or paralyzed near Arkansas’ DeGray Lake. Autopsies revealed the eagles died of a new disease called avian vacuolar myelinopathy (VM) that manifests as brain lesions. The dying spread to Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas and Texas (hashed areas on the map below) and continues to this day. In 2021 scientists discovered what causes VM. It’s a chain of events that begins when we use an aquatic weed killer to control an invasive weed.

VM occurs in watersheds where A. hydrillicola colonizes H. verticillata. Watersheds where VM has been diagnosed (indicated by black crosshatching). Watersheds where H. verticillata has been confirmed to be colonized with A. hydrillicola are shown in red, and watersheds where A. hydrillicola has not yet been observed on H. verticillata are shown in yellow. Watersheds not yet screened for A. hydrillicola, but where H. verticillata occurs, are shown in green. This map, embedded from NIH, is current to fall 2019.

The invasive weed is hydrilla (Hydrilla verticillata) that spreads easily and clogs waterways. It’s a huge problem in many southeastern states, especially in Florida.

Hydrilla at Lake Seminole, Florida (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hydrilla hosts a cyanobacteria called Aetokthonos hydrillicola which does not produce toxins by itself(*). However when it comes in contact with bromide-containing aquatic weed killer, meant to kill hydrilla, it produces a neurotoxin.

Cyanobacterium on hydrilla produces a neurotoxin in the presence of bromide weed killers (subimage from diagram below + jug composed from spare parts)

Fish and waterbirds, including American coots, eat the hydrilla and consume the neurotoxin. Soon they develop VM brain lesions.

American coot eating hydrilla (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Bald eagles and other predators eat the fish and coots, often preying on sick ones because they are easy to catch.

Bald eagle hunting an American coot (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And so bald eagles develop brain lesions and die of vacuolar myelinopathy.

The AVM cycle begins with a cyanobacteria on hydrilla that develops a neurotixin when treated with bromide weed killer (diagram from Wikimedia Commons)

The way to stop the dying is described in this NIH article Hunting the eagle killer: A cyanobacterial neurotoxin causes vacuolar myelinopathy:

Integrated chemical plant management plans to control H. verticillata should avoid the use of bromide-containing chemicals (e.g., diquat dibromide). [The neurotoxin] AETX is lipophilic with the potential for bioaccumulation during transfer through food webs, so mammals may also be at risk.

— from NIH: Hunting the eagle killer: A cyanobacterial neurotoxin causes vacuolar myelinopathy

Thus if you use a bromide-containing chemical (e.g. diquat dibromide) to control hydrilla you will unintentionally kill bald eagles.

Diquat aquatic weed killer contains bromide which leads to AVM (image constructed by Kate St. John)

Other solutions for controlling hydrilla without herbicide are highlighted in Florida Today (article and video): Melbourne-Tillman harvests hydrilla to avoid herbicides.

Meanwhile bald eagles aren’t out of the woods yet because we don’t know how long it will take for the neurotoxins to clear from infected lakes.

For more information see the article that inspired this topic: Science Magazine: Mysterious eagle killer identified: A new species of cyanobacteria that lives on invasive waterweed produces an unusual neurotoxin.

(photos and diagram from Wikimedia Commons, map embedded from NIH; click on the captions to see the originals)


(*) The mystery was solved when scientists discovered that the toxin came from bromides that did not occur naturally. From NIH, Hunting the eagle killer: A cyanobacterial neurotoxin causes vacuolar myelinopathy: “Laboratory cultures of the cyanobacterium, however, did not elicit VM. A. hydrillicola growing on H. verticillata collected at VM-positive reservoirs was then analyzed by mass spectrometry imaging, which revealed that cyanobacterial colonies were colocalized with a brominated metabolite. Supplementation of an A. hydrillicola laboratory culture with potassium bromide resulted in pronounced biosynthesis of this metabolite. H. verticillata hyperaccumulates bromide from the environment, potentially supplying the cyanobacterium with this biosynthesis precursor.”

Fruit on the Planet of Weeds

Oriental bittersweet, Frick Park, 29 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

1 November 2022

Just over a week ago I wrote about the sixth mass extinction during which the Earth will become a weedy place with fewer species.

Earth will be a different sort of place — soon, in just five or six human generations. My label for that place, that time, that apparently unavoidable prospect, is the Planet of Weeds.

David Quammen, Planet of Weeds, Harper’s Magazine, October 1988

The plants pictured here are some of those weeds, all of them non-native invasives that happen to provide food for birds and small mammals.

Last week in Frick Park large flocks of American robins gobbled up oriental bittersweet, honeysuckle and porcelain berry fruits. As they continue their migration they’ll deposit the seeds along the way.

(Amur) honeysuckle fruit, NMR Trail, 27 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Porcelain berry fruit, NMR Trail, 27 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Animals that aren’t afraid of thorns eat the fruits of Japanese barberry.

Japanese barberry in October (photo by Kate St. John)

After the frost softens the Callery pears robins and starlings strip the fruit from these invasive trees.

Callery pear fruits in November 2012 (photo by Kate St. John)

Even though the fruits are “weeds” they can be beautiful.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Fall Color This Week

Sunrise in Pittsburgh, 28 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 October 2022

Fall color was brilliant this week, especially at sunrise.

Bright red was gone from our hillsides as the maples faded but other leaves took up the slack in yellow and orange. Below:

  • Bottlebrush buckeyes are yellow in Schenley Park.
  • Japanese knotweed is yellow-orange at Duck Hollow.
  • Blue-green porcelain berries were eagerly eaten by migrating robins.
  • Red honeysuckle berries attracted cardinals and house finches.
  • Confused flowers! Forsythia bloomed along the Nine Mile Run Trail even though its leaves were a deep purple-red.
  • Red oaks are red-orange in Schenley Park.
Bottlebrush buckeye leaves turn yellow in Schenley Park, 25 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fall color, Japanese knotweed, Duck Hollow, 27 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Porcelain berry fruit, Nine Mile Run Trail, 27 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Honeysuckle fruit, Nine Mile Run Trail, 27 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Forsythia blooming in late October, NMR Trail, 27 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Fall color, Schenley Park from Panther Hollow Bridge, 25 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

A week from now the trees will be half bare.

(photos by Kate St. John)

Seen This Week

Fall leaves, Schenley Park, 12 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

15 October 2022

Fall colors were looking good in the City of Pittsburgh this week. A maple in Schenley Park turned shades of orange and red while the sunrise worked to match it.

Sunrise on 12 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

This acorn in Schenley Park is a squirrel’s dream come true, the largest acorn native to North America. Bur oaks (Quercus macrocarpa also spelled burr oak) were planted in several places in the park more than 100 years ago, most notably at the main trail entrance near Bartlett Playground. This species withstands harsh conditions and is one of the most drought resistant oaks.

Bur oak acorn, Schenley Park, 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Goldenrods are blooming in the small meadow near Bartlett Playground.

Goldenrod in meadow, Schenley Park, 12 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

During my walk to Schenley Plaza on 11 October I saw a peregrine fly toward Heinz Chapel’s scaffolding and disappear among the dense rods.

Heinz Chapel scaffolding, 11 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

If he hadn’t moved I would not have found him. Ta dah! (See inside red circle.)

Peregrine falcon perched (circled) on Heinz Chapel scaffolding, 11 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Amazingly he was easier to see through binoculars from Schenley Plaza tent. Too far for a photo.

(photos by Kate St. John)

October With Too Many Deer

Colorful leaves, Schenley Park, 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

10 October 2022

The season has changed and the woods in Schenley Park look different than they did a month ago. The trees are putting on fall color and deer are providing more evidence of their overpopulation in the park.

Doe browsing in Schenley Park, 21 Aug 2022. NOTE: A buck-rubbed sapling is in the foreground (photo by Kate St. John)

With the growing season over there is less greenery for deer to eat and there are fewer places to browse because they have already denuded many areas.

Nothing growing on the ground in the presence of too many deer, Schenley Park, 9 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

What is left has been eaten down to nubs, just visible above the unpalatable invasive plants. Below, goutweed nearly hides the tops of what used to be jewelweed while pokeweed was browsed to tiny leaves and bare stems.

Favored plants are browsed to the tops of unappetizing plants (goutweed), Schenley Park 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)
Pokeweed overbrowsed by deer, Schenley Park, 9 October 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

As the greenery disappears deer eat tree saplings and small branches. In cases of deer overpopulation, such as Schenley Park, the young trees are foraged down to bonsai.

Ash tree sapling overbrowsed by deer, like bonsai, Schenley Park, 9 Oct 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Schenley no longer has enough food for deer so at night they walk into neighborhoods and browse in backyards. This is happening across the city and has prompted some residents to consider a Deer Management Plan for Pittsburgh. KDKA’s Andy Sheen reports: Some Pittsburgh residents say it’s time to get deer population under control. Click on the link or the screenshot below.

Some Pittsburgh residents say it’s time to get the deer problem under control, KDKA Andy Sheehan

(photos by Kate St. John + screenshot from KDKA)

Why Are Some Leaves Variegated?

Variegated bishop’s weed (goutweed) in the garden (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

6 October 2022

Variegated leaves add interest to the garden so horticulturalists breed plants with that in mind. Some examples of their success include goutweed (Aegopodium podagraria a.k.a. bishop’s weed or ground elder) and varieties of holly (Ilex sp.).

Variegated English holly in New Jersey (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

When these plants escape to the wild they revert to their normal non-variegated form. Goutweed is excellent example. Now invasive in Schenley Park it always has plain green leaves.

Goutweed that escaped to the wild, Schenley Park, June 2022 (photo by Kate St. John)

Some plants however, adopt variegation on their own. Learn why in this vintage article.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons and Kate St. John)